The Writing on the Wall

The writing on the wall—hundreds of names and cryptic messages dating to the 1890’s scratched, carved, penciled on the south wall of the building at 123 South Broadway. Who were these people and why did they feel compelled to leave us these mysteries on soft yellow bricks? Who was Walden from Minot, North Dakota? In an era when twenty miles per hour was breakneck speed, what was he doing three hundred miles from home? What was so significant about Easter Sunday, 1896, that a long-gone passerby rendered it—misspelled—three times in flowing script? How far did Slim Berg get after carving "heading south" next to his name on June 9, 1918?

The Pelican Rapids City Administrator Richard Jenson had no idea the writing was even there; neither did a previous City Clerk, a native Pelicanite since 1915; nor did Marguerite Andrews, the grande dame of local amateur historians. The Otter Tail County Historical Society, likewise, could offer no clues.

The earliest history of Pelican Rapids dates from easterner William H. Tuttle’s 1870 sawmill, which harnessed the rushing water near the present Mill Pond dam to saw lumber for settlers’ cabins. Though Tuttle limped back East after being fleeced and ruined by Gordon Gordon, an English butler masquerading as royalty, hordes of land–hungry Swedish and Norwegian immigrants "proved up" their homestead claims to surrounding farmland. It was a wildly enthusiastic age. The Civil War was over and business was booming, fueled by a great rush to settle the Great Plains. Boosters envisioned Pelican Rapids as "the Chicago of the Northwest" and track laying crews raced to spike the first rails into our community.

A deal cut in smokey corporate boardrooms, however, bypassed Pelican Rapids, entirely. The Great Northern finally arrived in June of 1882, on a twenty mile dead–end spur north from Fergus Falls.

The real estate abstract of the South Broadway building traces the development of the community—land ceded to the St. Paul Pacific Railroad, giving way in Federal Court to the Northern Pacific, and finally being acquired by robber baron James G. Hill of the Great Northern. The land was eventually sold to pioneer speculator R. L. Frazee, another Easterner who was buying up all water power sites along the Pelican River. Frazee plotted dozens of twenty–five foot city lots, two of which were sold to Scandinavians Anderson and Stensrud. Then came a mortgage for six thousand dollars for a building of local yellow brick.

Homemade brick chimneys and the searing heat of wood stoves led to disasters. Nervous Chicago, St. Paul, and Fargo insurance underwriters requested information to assess their liabilities. In 1895, the Sanborn Map Company of Chicago published a survey of downtown buildings, now on file at the city office, showing a general store at 123 South Broadway, between the Scandia Hotel and the Pelican Billiards Parlor, directly across the street from the Great Northern Depot. A broad arrow careening diagonally northwest to southeast noted the direction of the prevailing wind, that could conceivably blow a raging fire across town.

In 1917, the store was bought by the emerging Pelican Telephone Company and used to house their newfangled switchboard—and incidentally, the town’s only public telephone for the following thirty years.

And so, the pieces begin to fall into place—a sheltered spot midway between the hotel and pool hall, across the street from the depot, convenient to the only public telephone for twenty miles. It was a perfect spot for purposeful but momentarily bored travelers, itinerant farm workers following the harvest, perhaps a hobo or two—all waiting for the "Pelican Flyer," the Great Northern on a twenty mile dead–end run that would carry them down the clicking and shining rails to the rest of their lives.

In time, their graffiti attracted others—locals Adella Lundhagen, married in 1935 to Russell Knutson, who carried three generations of Pelican school children in lumbering yellow buses, and Lavonne Berg, now over fifty, who deftly rendered her name in pencil as a twelve–year–old.

And it continues. Only a year ago, a resident of the apartment occupying the former switchboard office awoke to early morning laughter outside her bedroom window. Rising to investigate, she found two teenage girls on their way to school, giggling away from the words, "Brian loves Tina."

~Roger Pinckney